Nancy Isenberg says what Americans think is exceptional about them is that they erased class distinctionsHistorians in the News
tags: Nancy Isenberg, Exceptionalism, White Trash
They were called waste people, their children referred to as fry, and they had more value to the British Crown “as dead colonists than as idle waste in England.”
According to historian Nancy Isenberg, the author of “White Trash: The 400-Year Untold Story of Class in America” (Viking), these vagrants, many of them former soldiers and sailors, comprised the vast majority of the people who populated early settlements in Jamestown and New England. They had little or no chance of rising above their status as useful tools for wealthy British investors.
“Americans, on the one hand, like the myths we tell ourselves about the origins of America and that we're the land of opportunity,” says Isenberg, who appears Sept. 25 at Carnegie Music Hall in Oakland as a guest of Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures. “But at the same time, as I show in the book, we often don't believe that and are more than willing to divide people up and recognize class distinctions.”
“White Trash” tracks the origins of people referred to as “white trash” in America, from the early colonists through the hillbilly culture of the early 20th century to contemporary portrayals in shows such as “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.” While class has been a societal element dating back to Greek and Roman civilizations, Isenberg thinks the difference in the United States lies in how the Founding Fathers promoted the country as apart from the status quo.
“We were building a brand new world order that somehow was going to escape the legacy of class,” she says. “And that myth has gotten a lot of play. It constantly gets invoked whether it's presidents giving addresses, what's taught to grade school children, what's seen on TV. What's interesting about America is we invented this myth of being exceptional that was all tied up in the idea of erasing class.” ...
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